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A Snowball Effect: Sundance Festival Has Been on a Roll

PARK CITY, Utah I made a vow that if one more person complained that the Sundance Film Festival had grown too large, I would suggest that he leave immediately, to help it grow smaller again.

I came here the first time 14 years ago, when there were about 400 participants and they could fit into one of the little cinemas next door to the Western boots store. Now there are 10,000 customers, including half the hungry young agents in Hollywood, and Sundance has grown into the most important date on the calendar for independent filmmakers. I think that's great.

In the early years it was called the Park City Film Festival, and was, I suspect, a Chamber of Commerce notion to boost tourism in this Utah ski resort. It more or less stumbled into featuring independent films - those made outside the studio system, often on tiny budgets.

It so happened that Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, founded at about the same time on the other side of Salt Lake City, near Provo, had the same agenda. Every summer, Redford and other filmmakers would assemble a group of young filmmakers and grizzled veterans, and conduct workshops on writing, editing, acting, directing and cinematography.

When Redford's institute merged with the film festival a decade ago, something clicked, and Sundance has been growing by leaps and bounds ever since. Some cynics say it is because Salt Lake City is only an hour by air from Los Angeles, and the slopes of Park City are less than an hour by car from the airport. But if everybody came here to ski, it wouldn't be so hard to get into the screenings.

Sundance is sort of like early spring training for the new season of independent filmmakers. They come here as complete unknowns and try to belt one out of the park. In recent years, Steven Soderbergh's "sex, lies, and videotape" was discovered here, and Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," and Robert Rodriquez' $8,000 "El Mariachi," and last year's great documentary "Hoop Dreams."

This year the big winners were named Edward Burns, Terry Zwigoff and Kayo Hatta.

Burns' "The Brothers McMullen," the story of three Irish Catholic brothers from Long Island, N.Y., who share the family home and each other's problems, won the Grand Jury Prize for best dramatic film. In the time-honored Sundance tradition, it cost less than $30,000, was shot on weekends, and used Burns' family home as a principal location. The actors were recruited by an ad in Backstage magazine that promised "no pay AND no food," and such is the eagerness of New York actors to work that Burns received 1,500 photos and resumes. The result is a film that draws its characters so clearly and sympathetically that the budget is irrelevant; this would be the same movie if it cost 10 times as much (which would still be peanuts by Hollywood standards). Zwigoff's extraordinary documentary "Crumb" won the Grand Jury Prize for best doc, and no one who sees it will wonder why. It tells one of those bizarre American stories that's stranger than fiction. Zwigoff began, nine years ago, to make a film about a friend of his, the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, whose "Keep on Truckin' " and "Fritz the Cat" drawings became 1960s icons. As Zwigoff peered more deeply into Crumb's past and his personal life, however, he discovered a family history that the term "dysfunctional" doesn't even begin to describe.

One of Crumb's brothers had not left his mother's home for 30 years. Another was into self-mortification, including sleeping on a bed of nails. Crumb himself, highly regarded for his artwork, reveals that an alarming percentage of his cartoon fantasies are, in fact, based on reality and on real people he wants to get even with - especially those who bullied or ignored him in high school. Deeper and deeper Zwigoff's film spirals, down into dark mysteries and sad secrets.

Kayo Hatto is a Japanese-American, Hawaiian-born woman whose grandmother was a mail-order bride in the late 19th century. Selected by her photograph, she made the long sea voyage from Japan to Hawaii, where her husband-to-be worked in the cane fields. Hatto based "Picture Bride" on her grandmother's story, and made it into a portrait of a whole society that was displaced, poor and discriminated against, but stuck together and prevailed.

The movie won the Sundance "audience award," by getting the highest average score among filmgoers, who vote as they exit each screening. In the documentary category, there was a tie in the audience vote, between "Ballot Measure 9," a record of the 1992 Oregon referendum to restrict gay rights, and "Unzipped," behind the scenes with fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi.

Momentum for documentaries

If Sundance is a showcase for independent features, it's even more important to documentary filmmakers, whose art form is thriving in quality even as it loses funding and audiences. Last year's "Hoop Dreams," unveiled at Sundance, went on to make more critics' Top 10 lists than any films except "Forrest Gump" and "Pulp Fiction" - and might have placed even higher, if more critics had seen it (it goes into wide release next week). Among the docs at this year's Sundance, especially good reviews went to the late Marlon T. Riggs' "Black Is . . . Black Ain't," a documentary based on his conviction that there can be countless different African-American self-images, and that no one has the right to define "blackness" for anyone else.

Other highly regarded docs were "When Billy Broke His Head," the portrait of a militant disabled person, Billy Golfus, who wrote and narrated it and co-directed it with David E. Simpson, and "Jupiter's Bride" by Michael Negroponte, about a homeless woman who lives in Central Park.

Sundance held premieres this year for many films that were not in the official competition, and among them my favorite was "My Family," by Gregory Nava. This is the most ambitious and sweeping film ever made about Americans of Latin descent, and tells the story of three generations of a Mexican-American family, including an ancient relative who lived in Los Angeles when it was still part of Mexico.

With stars like Edward James Olmos, Jimmy Smits and Esai Morales, veteran Mexican actors like Eduardo Lopez Rojas, and dazzling discoveries like Jenny Gago, Constance Marie and Lupe Ontiveros, the film paints a broad, bright canvas. It's a generational epic like "The Godfather," except that Nava (whose "El Norte" has become a classic) is not obsessed only with drugs, violence and guns. He shows a family in which there is much good and joy, along with some bad times. There has never been a major "breakthrough" Latino box office hit that appeals to the general audience, but "My Family" looks like it could be the first.

Brightest hopes for future

Other important films at Sundance this year:

"Homage," by Ross Kagan Marks, tells the frightening story of a TV soap star who comes home to her mother's ranch and becomes the object of the obsessions of a bright, unbalanced farm hand.

"Once Were Warriors," by Lee Tamahori from New Zealand, is a chilling story of a battered Maori wife and her attempts to hold her family together.

"Before the Rain" is Milcho Manchevski's heartrending closeup drama about the carnage in what was formerly Yugoslavia.

"Exotica" by the offbeat and inventive Canadian Adam Egoyan tells a strange story of lost lives centering on a sex club.

"Muriel's Wedding" by Australia's P.J. Hogan is about a plump girl who wants to get married, and gets her dream, and is happy no matter what anyone says.

"Strawberry and Chocolate" by Cuba's great veteran director Tomas Gutierez Alea is the story of a Havana homosexual who is critical of the government, and whose life provides inspiration for a young man he attempts to seduce and ends up educating.

"The Wife" is actor-director Tom Noonan's second film (after "What Happened Was . . .") to document a long night's conversation during which uncomfortable truths nudge their way into the light.

"The Secret of Roan Inish" by pioneering independent John Sayles is an Irish fable with a supernatural lilt.

And "Shallow Grave," from Scotland's Danny Boyle, is this year's most acclaimed British film. It's about yuppie roommates in Edinburgh who might be able to keep a lot of money if they can decide what to do with a dead body they find on their hands.

Hollywood dreams

All of these films, and many more, played morning, noon and night at Sundance this year, and the cafes and bars were filled with people debating their merits. The process was lent an air of excitement by the thought that the next Soderbergh, Tarantino or Rodriguez might be somewhere in town.

Maybe he was. Edward Burns was working until two weeks ago as a production assistant and truck driver for "Entertainment Tonight." He brought "The Brothers McMullen" to town with no agent, no distributor and no money. After the film's first screening, the cards of agents rained upon him, and the film was snapped up by Searchlight, a division of 20th Century-Fox. "My whole life has changed in the last 24 hours," he said, after winning the Grand Jury Prize.

Of course, fiction films traditionally have better luck than documentaries, which is perhaps why the other Grand Jury Prize winner, Terry Zwigoff, director of "Crumb," was less ecstatic. "I don't ski," he complained to me. "I don't have a cellular phone. I don't have a bottle of Evian water. I don't know what I'm doing here." Of course, that was before he won his prize.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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